In the unlikely event that South Africa beat the All Blacks by 15 points or more tomorrow, Steve Hansen’s men will lose their place as the world’s top-ranked team, an honour they have held since 2009, but not to the Springboks – to Wales.
Significantly, Wales haven’t beaten New Zealand since 1953, so one could argue all day about the merits of the ranking system but what is not in question is the threat the Boks, ranked fifth and on their way up, will provide at Westpac Stadium and as the All Blacks’ first World Cup pool opponents in Yokohama on September 21.
After beating the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington last year – the All Blacks’ first loss at home to the South Africans since 2009 – and losing 32-30 in the return test in Pretoria, the Boks have travelled here confident they have the ability to beat the current best team in the world and, significantly under coach Rassie Erasmus, the right game plan to do so.
They won last year by taking every chance presented to them – and Anton Lienert-Brown and Jordie Barrett were guilty of a couple of high-profile errors – but they never stopped playing with ambition and in the end their defence on their own line was remarkable as the All Blacks crashed against it like waves on a rock.
It was a turning point in their development but also the All Blacks, who turned down two kickable penalties late in the test when chasing it and are unlikely to do so again under Steve Hansen.
Beauden Barrett could have thrown the ball over the bar with 13 minutes remaining which would have narrowed the score to 32-36, but instead the All Blacks went for a scrum which came to nothing, an overly attacking attitude which was openly criticised by Hansen, who pointed the finger at all of his leaders.
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“Our game management was next door to zero… that was our biggest problem,” Hansen said 10 months ago before making a pointed reference to the 2007 World Cup quarter-final disaster against France.
“I think back to 2007 as the last time I can think of the game that we so poorly managed. It was the pressure of the scoreboard and the pressure of the event and this time the same thing happened.
“We got really individualistic and tried to do it all by ourselves. All we had to do was take a big breath and maybe take a shot at goal in the 66th minute and that gives you three points and maybe get a try and that puts you in front. That’s one example.
“A dropped goal wouldn’t be bad either would it, and we couldn’t do one of those in 2007 because it’s not the thing that the five-eight at that time is used to doing. It’s not one that Beauden [Barrett] has done, I don’t think he’s ever got one [in tests].”
Significantly, Barrett attempted one in Pretoria during the dramatic 32-30 victory for the visitors, which featured two converted tries for Scott Barrett and Ardie Savea in the final five minutes. Barrett’s shot, taken under a penalty advantage, missed, but it proved Hansen’s point had reached receptive ears.
What are the chances we see a few attempts from first-five Richie Mo’unga against the Boks tomorrow?
After this test there are only three to go until the World Cup, so the practice certainly wouldn’t hurt and while this test is lower on Hansen’s priority list than the next month’s two Bledisloe Cup fixtures, there is a world ranking to uphold, last year’s result to put right and a World Cup to prepare for.
It goes without saying that another defeat to South Africa would undermine confidence, but should Wales attain the No 1 spot after this weekend it would cause all sorts of questions to be asked. Execution is key, but so is game management.
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